MIF: The Old Woman

An old lady is standing in the courtyard and holding a wall clock in her hands. I walk past the old woman, stop and ask her, ‘What time is it?’

By Lee Isherwood | 19 July 2013

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If like me you’re fairly new to experimental theatre you may not have heard of Robert Wilson. Well in short he is a pioneering theatre director at the very heart of contemporary & experimental performance and just so happens to be at the top of his game. Continuing from his last production for MIF; The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, which was critically acclaimed, this year he brought The Old Woman.


Developed with and starring legendary dancer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov, and co-starring world-renowned actor Willem Dafoe, The Old Woman is an adaptation of the work of the same name by Russian author Daniil Kharms.

Born in St Petersburg in 1905, Kharms suffered through Stalinist rule for much of his life and was eventually arrested, imprisoned and killed by Soviet soldiers aged just 36. The shortness of Kharms’ life parallels the brevity of his absurdist writings, some of which stretch to little more than a paragraph. One exception is The Old Woman, an obscure, brilliant and slyly political novella written in the 1930s.


The opening scene and we catch our first glimpse of these 2 fantastic performers, symmetrical and identically dressed a literal mirror image with only their parted hair in opposite directions to give the subtlest of clues that these are indeed the same person or 2 halves, maybe interchangeable personalities that converse or maybe all of the both. I feel it was the later.

Visually Robert Wilson has said that he starts with the lighting and goes from there, never has this been more apparent that this production, the use of light tubes and projected colour onto white objects to instantly change their mood was simply stunning. The sets are stark, black with white elements, never more than is needed, there is no frivolity here, it’s graphic in its execution and visually one of the most pleasing things I’ve ever seen.


And so onto the story. Fragmented shards of consciousness that dip between personalities, genders and nationalities where night to turns to day, activity turns to sleep and nightmares turn to death at the flicker of a light The Old Woman is like nothing I’ve seen before.

Dafoe delivers lines that are made for him, that only his voice can add the level of intensity needed to repeat 3 words over and over again whilst staring into blackness. His every line directed not only at the audience but at his other self, Baryshnikov.

Baryshnikov brings an elegance to the performance that only a master of dance such as he could. His role feels more feminine and indeed in part this is the case but his voice carry’s the weight of his words. Strong but sometimes almost cheeky Russian dialect works side by side with the growls of Dafoe and the conversations are absurd yet somehow coherent.

An old lady is standing in the courtyard and holding a wall clock in her hands. I walk past the old woman, stop and ask her, ‘What time is it?’

‘You look,’ the old woman says to me. I look and see that the clock has no hands.

‘There are no hands,’ I say.

The old woman looks at the face of the clock and says to me, ‘It’s a quarter to three.’



The Old Woman was billed as one of the highlights of this years Manchester International Festival and it certainly lived up that accolade. To see a Robert Wilson production with such talented actors in not something I’ll forget any time soon.